A major study of schools in 34 English-speaking countries has revealed widespread displayed bias and underrepresentation of women in their textbooks.
Researchers from the Center for Global Development found that 69% of the reading material they analysed contained these themes, highlighting calls for this issue to be addressed by education policymakers.
The study included textbooks from rich countries such as the US, UK, and Australia, as well as poorer countries, including India, Pakistan, Uganda, and South Africa.
Across all the textbooks analysed, there were twice as many male words (like he, him, his) as there are female words (she, her, hers). And where they were present, women were more often linked to domestic roles, family and appearances – closely linked to words like “wedding”, “home”, and “beautiful”.
Men were more likely to be associated with words like “leader”, “authority”, and “career”, and are most frequently depicted as scientists, for instance. Women are also depicted in more passive roles, with female characters significantly less likely to be the active subject of sentences.
“Getting all girls into school remains a high-profile global priority. But what girls (and boys) are being taught when they get there clearly matters too,” Lee Crawfurd, Research Fellow at the Center for Global Development and lead author of the research said.
“It seems unlikely that girls’ education will achieve all it can if girls are being shown that they don’t belong in positions of achievement and authority by the books they’re being taught from.”
The researchers say this level of gender bias in textbooks correlates with broader measures of gender inequality in respective countries. The countries with the least representation of women and girls are Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and South Sudan.
The study’s authors note that in many lower-income countries school books are funded by foreign aid programmes. They specifically examined sexism within these donor-funded books, and found that while they perform slightly better, there is still significant under-representation of women and girls.
Researchers used modern natural language processing techniques, in order to rapidly audit large volumes of text—an approach they argue could be used in the future to ensure gender bias within resources is addressed.
“Removing gender bias from school textbooks won’t solve gender inequality by itself – but it’s a viable, cost-effective strategy, which could impact millions of children and promote progressive gender roles,” Crawfurd said.
The original version of this story appeared as a media release from the Center for Global Development.